Sunday, October 9, 2016

The State of Nude Photography

I ran across a portfolio, nevermind where I'm not even going to link to the thing, which claimed to be about capturing true emotion in a series of (mostly) nude photographs of women. The photographer threw in a detail picture of a hand for each nude, as a sort of concession to Art, and, weirdly, they seem to be the same hands in all cases, and therefore not the model's hands. What now? Then she wrote a long tedious statement about how the models expose themselves to my camera and how awesome the true nature of the emotion ... yawn. The pictures, of course, are dead-eyed eastern European girls, mostly naked, staring desperately at the camera. The relationship between the pictures and the statement is nil.

So I said to myself, surely I can find something better than this to juxtapose and talk about. So I looked around a bit. I didn't spend hours at this, but I skimmed a lot of thumbnails, and dipped into a handful of portfolios with vaguely interesting thumbnails.

It's all awful. Good lord. Nobody has anything to say with nudes.

There are, basically, three looks. Dead-eyed and vaguely desperate. Seductive, with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Bold-and-brassy (you can tell by the cigarette, usually). Very rarely there is a "oh hey, I'm just cooking eggs or whatever and happen to be naked" but that's about it. If the portfolio claims to be about "Love" what that means is two dead-eyed female models cuddling like two complete strangers, because love=lesbian.

How disappointing.

Occasionally you'll get a nude male, and then there's a sort of desperate effort to render the guy sculptural and abstract, because ain't nobody wants to see that, and now and again you'll run across a bunch of dance photos done in the buff, which are nice the first time around but then you see they're all the same. And then there's the fetish crew with their 2 or 3 tropes.

Virtually all of it is simply an example of what happens when someone with no idea gets some models out of their pants. The photographer falls back on a handful of basic tropes, and then perhaps writes an unrelated statement about empowerment or gender dynamics or rawness of emotion.

Let's take a walk back through time. I've probably going to entirely miss out on several enormously important movements. Sorry. Feel free to bring it up in comments.

Consider the pictorialists, I showed a couple of these things off the other day. These were usually very stylized pseudo-naturalistic things which, of course, tried to look like paintings. They're primarily studies in shapes and forms as much as anything else, although often they're really classic "figure studies" which, once invented, never went away because painters like to hang around with naked models. With the advent of straight photography, we no longer had the veil of painterliness to hide behind, so we got more abstract instead. Edward Weston did these sculptural things, studies of shapes and form, and lots of other people did similar work around the same time. We still see these sorts of studies of shape and form, male nudes almost always fall under this, females more rarely.

Regarding figure studies. Were these things not invented because painters "needed" to practice with the nude form before putting clothes onto it? If that's indeed the rationale, one wonders what on earth photographers are doing "figure studies" for. Well, one doesn't wonder much, to be sure. But still.

Moving onwards a couple more examples. We have John Lennon, nude, embracing a clothed Yoko Ono on the cover of Rolling Stone. It's iconic, you've seen it. Hold on to that one. Elsewhere and newer, we find Stone Nudes and we have ESPN's nude portraits of Olympic athletes. These latter two kind of fit in with the nude dancers trope that pops up here and there. There are some actual ideas in play here, which is nice to see.

John and Yoko, while I don't much like the people or the picture, is doing something interesting. Nudity can be associated with love, and here we have what sure looks like a genuine expression of love. It's solid work. It reads, it makes sense, it's minimally exploitative. Stone Nudes and the others attack from a different angle, looking explicitly at the physicality of athletic activity, and showing us the bodies, the machines that do these amazing things. These are, to my eye, less successful largely because they lack courage.

If you're going to go rock climbing in the nude, there will be bruises and scrapes. The idealized female forms of the Stone Nudes leave that out entirely, and are reduced thereby to just another series of studies in form and texture. Interesting, to be sure. Exploitative? Maybe. The perfection of the bodies and the uniformly female models leave me a little chilly. The Olympians are mixed in gender, at least, but cannot resist the urge to idealize and airbrush. While we celebrate the athletic form, we have to admit that athletes don't look like that. There are simply more bruises involved. Ditto the various dancers.

I'd love to see something about Love that really gets at it. There's a risk of making porn here, but then you're always rubbing up against that with nudes. I'd love to see some Nude Athlete kinds of things with sweat and blood and scrapes and real effort, not stylized prettiness. There's something to be done here, I think. Not by me, I have two small kids and a puppy at the moment. Getting my pants on the right way around in the morning is about the limit of my ability these days.

Probably someone somewhere is really doing these themes justice, the idea of genuine Love, and the idea of Physicality. I haven't found either, though. Let me know if you run across something!


  1. My wife occasionally makes some awesome nude self portraits. Gritty, real and slightly punk in aesthetic.

  2. Jock Sturges came to mind first (likely because his exhibition was closed in Moscow recently -

    But what if you replaced "nude people" with something like, say, "old cars"? Would it be a category in itself? You could imagine pictures which make sense and have old cars in it and if you become imaginative, you could maybe make something artistic of it, but it'll be very hard.

    Where I wanted to end up is that there's plenty of nudity here and there (Sally Mann!), but (usually) it's part of your vocabulary, not what you want to say.

    1. That's an interesting take.

      Nude photos certainly ARE a category, they're a subject people pursue, but you're right that it needn't be that way. Some people attempt this without much success, because they're unable to persuade me (the viewer) that the nudity is natural and simply part of the bigger whole. This is the "hot naked model cooking eggs" genre, in which the nudity is obviously the point anyways.

      Sally Mann and to an extent Jock Sturges (thanks for the reminder) have managed it somewhat better. I cannot help but think Sturges is largely interested in poking a stick in the eye of American Prudeness, and in his stuff the nakedness is definitely the point. But he does seem to have something else going on that I can't quite put my finger on. I'm not sure I like or approve. I am, after all, an American Prude.

  3. This seems an awfully elaborate way to justify to Mrs. M. why you were caught looking at "nude" photographs on the web. Research, dearest, research...

    Seriously, though: call me naive, but I must admit I was quite shocked by what turned up in a Google image search for "nude". "Not suitable for work" doesn't begin to cover it. And therein lies the, ah, rub. Separating nakedness from sexuality is a nice idea but fatally utopian (just ask Sally Mann), not to mention the effects of that wicked old Male Gaze.

    Nude photography? Just say no... (and delete that search history before the kids next use the computer).


    1. I'm not quite sure how I searched. I think I started on one of the infinitely many "portfolio hosting" web sites, which sifted out a much of the overt porn.

      But yes, it is an EXCELLENT cover!

    2. If I type "nude" in the google image search bar, all I get are scantily clad models and make-up product in skin colour (the colour is called "nude", obviously), one image from Spencer Tunick and one nudist beach. All this without "safe search" turned on. Nothing shocking.
      Why you get something else is beyond me, but it would be interesting to find out. Google gives different results according to where one live and what their search history is. If you are logged on, they may give different results according to your emails, diary or your android phone gps tracks of the past months.

  4. So Nigli ... where's the link?

  5. To me, the main problem I see with the artistic end of nude photography is a lack of innovation. Even the two examples of outdoor Physicality you cite with mild approval as having ‘actual ideas in play’ have clear antecedents in classicism and Nacktkultur (‘naturism’), the movement that flourished in Germany before WWII (see also the opening scenes of Riefenstahl’s Olympia Part I).* Mensa sana in corpore sano …

    One solution may indeed be the exploration of great themes like Love - another might be to find new ways of looking at the body by turning away from from the youthful female ideal. Example may be found in the self-portraits of an aging John Coplans, Penn’s fleshy nudes in his Earthly Bodies, the male nudes of Dianora Niccolini, the ‘therapeutic’ nudes of Matt Blum, and the photos of women with mastectomies (e.g. The Grace Project). However, I think there is still rmuch to be explored in the pursuit of Beauty and Form (and I don’t subscribe to the ‘all bodies are equally beautiful’ club).

    Here are some of my favourite photographers who have devoted varying amounts of their time to the nude: Flor Garduño, Lynn Bianchi, Barbara Cole, Ruth Bernhard, Christian Coigny, Emil Schildt, Andreas Heumann, Alvin Booth, Dennis Mecham, and much earlier, Rudolf Koppitz and Frantisek Drtikol, amongst others..

    *ESPN’s Olympians, though heroic, suffer badly from their auto-censorship through carefully placed arms and legs. See also Arthur Elgort’s photos in the 1990 Pirelli calendar.

    1. Ahem: 'Mens sana ...". 'A healthy table (mensa) in a healthy body' doesn't have quite the same ring to it!

  6. Bpete, she dains not to publicise.

  7. Thanks for mentioning Drtikol ericke. He's my all-time favorite.

  8. I'd say Saul Leiter did some nice nudes. Vaguely abstract and vaguely erotic.